That asterisk is important. To tell the history of soccer in Boston is mostly to tell the history of soccer in nearby cities and towns. Owing to a lack of available land, among other matters, the city has struggled to provide a suitable home for the beautiful game. It should be noted that this lack of land has treated American football much the same way; there is a reason the Patriots play in Foxboro. Soccer’s fortune has been inextricably linked to the gridiron game, in this area especially, since the very beginning.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the soccer hotbed of Massachusetts was not Boston, but Fall River, a textile town about 50 miles south. Teams from Fall River won the American Cup every year from 1888 to 1892. Meanwhile, in Boston, American football was developing in earnest across the river at Harvard, preventing the association game from truly getting a grip on the city. Boston wouldn’t have a presence in soccer until the 1920s, with Boston Soccer Club winning the 1927 American Soccer League.
But Fall River maintained its control on the Eastern soccer scene. The Fall River Rovers won the Challenge Cup (Now the U.S. Open Cup) and 1917, and 13,000 people showed up when they hosted the final in 1918. In the ’20s, the Fall River Marksmen dominated the American Soccer League, winning the championship seven times in nine tries. For good measure, they won the Challenge Cup four times during that span. But the depression hit soccer hard, and the last game the team ever played was game 3 of the Challenge Cup championship series in 1931. Naturally, they went out on top.
The ASL was in disarray in the early ’30s. A team in nearby New Bedford won the league in 1932, and the Challenge Cup that same year, only to fold in the middle of the next season. Wikipedia lists the 1932-33 ASL Champion as “unknown,” but a certain Fall River FC led the league.
What Might Have Been
In 1966, the National Professional Soccer League, one of two soccer leagues to pop up after the 1966 World Cup, managed to snag a television contract with CBS for its inaugural season. Not soon later, a planned franchise in Boston had to be scrapped because the ownership group couldn’t find a place to play. This would become a recurring theme for Boston; the New England Patriots were playing at Fenway Park that year, and wouldn’t have a stadium of their own until Foxboro Stadium was opened in 1971.
Boston’s spot in the unsanctioned league was given to the San Francisco Bay Area. The California Clippers, with a mix of Yugoslavian and Costa Rican players, would draw crowds as large as 25,000 for a friendly against Manchester City. Despite a championship in 1967, failure to draw regular crowds for domestic opposition resulted in the team’s fold in 1969.
The other league at the time was the United Soccer Association, which consisted of European teams masquerading as American ones. Stoke City became the Cleveland Stokers, Hibernian became Toronto City, and, most relevantly, Shamrock Rovers became Boston Rovers. They too, couldn’t find a home in Boston—they played their games in the northern suburb of Lynn. The Rovers drew the smallest average attendance in the league over six games, and they didn’t survive when the two leagues merged into the North American Soccer League in 1968.
Boston would have a team in the 1968 NASL, but little else of note. The Beacons played their home games at Fenway Park, but drew smaller crowds than the Rovers had the prior year. They went 9-17-6 and promptly folded.
One Night In 1975
Boston—Boston—would return to the NASL in 1974 in the form of the Minutemen. This new team played home games on the campus of Boston College, which is technically in Chestnut Hill, but close enough. The Minutemen’s inaugural season was marked by success on and off the field. The team won the northern division, and in a growing NASL they drew 9,642 fans per game, good for fifth in the league.
The Minutemen had most of their success in their first season, but they made the most noise in their second. Between seasons, they moved from Boston College to Boston University, firmly within the city limits. In 1975, the year the New York Cosmos brought Pele to America, the Minutemen made a less heralded purchase: Eusebio, the Portuguese great. It’s possible that no one has ever been as good as Pele, but Eusebio is right there among the best in the game’s history.
On June 20th, 1975, the two met on BU’s Nickerson Field. It was their first meeting since Portugal’s defeat of Brazil in the 1966 World Cup. Nickerson, which in the past hosted baseball’s Boston Braves, holds about 12,000 people. The Minutemen, struggling financially, sold about 20,000 tickets. Fans crowded along the sidelines, surrounding the pitch. O Rei, as Eusebio ws known in Portugal, opened the scoring in the second half with a bullet of a free kick. Goalkeeper Shep Messing, who would go on to be a teammate of Pele on the Cosmos, described Eusebio’s shot as the hardest he had ever seen.
Naturally, his Brazilian counterpart would answer. After scoring what seemed to be an equalizer, Pele was mobbed by adoring fans. Police had to escort him off the field and into the locker room. He stopped to sign a soccer ball on the way off. All this, and the goal was disallowed. The referee ruled that Pele had pushed off his defender. The Cosmos got their equalizer eventually, but the Minutemen won in a shootout.
The Minutemen went on to win their division again; in the playoffs, they lost a first-round match to Miami at Nickerson—in front of just 2,187 fans. Attendance had dropped sharply; despite the Pele fervor, the Minutemen averaged just 4,422 fans per game in 1975. The following year would prove even more troubling, as the team bounced from stadium to stadium in Foxboro, New Bedford and Quincy. Eusebio was sent to Toronto, where he went on to win the title. The Minutemen after the 1976 season, but in 2006 a statue of Eusebio was unveiled at Gillette Stadium.
The NASL made one last foray into Massachusetts. The New England Tea Men (the club was owned by Lipton) began play in Foxboro in 1978. Like their predecessors, the Tea Men saw things go south after a promising first season. 12,064 fans per game at Foxboro Stadium was cut nearly in half the following season in Nickerson Field. The Tea Men had been evicted due to a conflict with a nearby horse-racing track. They returned to Foxboro in 1980, but played mostly on Monday nights. The Tea Men moved to Jacksonville for the 1981 season. Three years later, the NASL folded, having overspent and overexpanded.
It would be more than a decade before top-tier soccer returned to the U.S., let alone Boston. But in the 1980s, Harvard’s men’s soccer team made the NCAA semifinals twice. To date, no Boston-area college team has reached the final.
The World Cup
The U.S. might still be looking for a top-tier soccer league if not for the 1994 World Cup. It is not an understatement to say that American soccer changed forever that summer. Foxboro Stadium played host to six of the 52 games. Average attendance was 54,022, which exceeded the stadium’s capacity for soccer. The USMNT would not play at Foxboro, but the stadium was the site of eventual runners-up Italy’s games in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals.
When Major League Soccer began play in 1996, the Boston area had one of the ten franchises. Robert Kraft, who kept the Patriots from moving to St. Louis in the early ’90s, was given owner-operator status of the New England Revolution. More than any other club, the Revs were linked to their NFL counterparts. They didn’t just share a stadium and an owner, as was also the case in Kansas City, but the Revolution’s name and colors echoed the Patriots.
Foxboro’s team was nearly short-lived. Foxboro Stadium was aging, and lacked modern amenities such as luxury boxes. For the Patriots’ sake, at least, Kraft was determined to replace it. After plans for a south Boston stadium met opposition in 1996, Kraft turned his eye away from the city. He made attempts to build a stadium in Providence, RI, and had those been successful, the Revs likely would have moved along with the Patriots. But that plan fell through as well, and in 2001 Gillette Stadium opened next door to the Pats’ previous home.
The Revs ditched the trend for pro soccer in the area—they had their best attendance to date in their second season instead of the first. But they failed to achieve a winning record in any of their first four seasons. In 2001, they began a trend of finishing runners-up. They lost in that year’s U.S. Open Cup Final, and over the next six seasons they lost four MLS Cup Finals. The first, in 2002, was played in Gillette Stadium in front of 61,316. Carlos Ruiz of the LA Galaxy scored the game’s only goal, a golden goal in the 113th minute.
Despite the success, attendance began to decline. The year following the MLS Cup spectacle, attendance at Gillette dropped by 13 percent, to 14,641. By the time the Revs won their third conference championship in 2006, the average crowd had shrunk to 11,786, which remains the lowest in franchise history. The week after the Revs lost the MLS Cup on penalties to Houston, ownership installed field turf at Gillette. The Patriots had just suffered a muddy loss.
Around this time, rumors began circling that the Revs were looking to join other MLS clubs in building a stadium of their own. In August 2007, reports first surfaced of talks between the team and Somerville regarding a soccer-specific stadium. The new stadium would hold about 20,000, much less than cavernous Gillette. Every once in a while, stories like this pop up again, with the Revs looking at Somerville or Revere. Little more has ever come from it.
The Revs have seen attendance tick up from its 2006 nadir, but they are consistently among the bottom five in MLS. Popular perception paints Kraft as a disinterested owner who is wholly content to have small crowds at a stadium he already owns. A recent Boston Magazine article labeled him “The Worst Owner in the League.“
It’s a shame, too, because the current team is worth getting excited about. They don’t spend much money, and have yet to bring in anything resembling high-priced star, but a bevy of young talent has them currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Perhaps the brightest of these young players is Diego Fagúndez, who at age 19 has already scored 20 goals for the team. Fagúndez was born in Uruguay, but having grown up in Leominster, MA, could pass for local talent. For now, however, the Revs toil in relative obscurity.
The British are Coming
Don’t let the Revs’ poor attendance fool you into thinking that Boston isn’t a soccer town. Anyone will tell you that the stereotypical American soccer fan is a young, urban male, and Boston has those in abundance. But they are also the sort of people who, in a city with decent public transportation, are less likely to own a car. It is a pain in the ass to go to Gillette Stadium for Revolution matches without a car. So fandom finds other ways to express itself.
As seems to be a recurring theme on this blog, MLS is not the most-popular soccer league in the U.S. The Revs, for their part, have nodded towards this fact. As early as 2002, the team played a double-header with a USMNT friendly. The following season, they hosted double-headers both with the Gold Cup and a friendly between Barcelona and Juventus. On all three of these occasions, they drew crowds larger than 30,000. Aside from the MLS Cup, the largest crowd for a single Revs match was a 2011 friendly against Manchester United. Oddly, they haven’t hosted a friendly along those lines since. Meanwhile, the city has become something of a hotbed for English soccer
Over the course of the Premier League’s first season on NBCSN, Boston ranked fourth among American cities in viewership. The city is home to New England’s largest supporters groups for European soccer. At bars across Boston, you can walk in on a Saturday morning and find soccer on the televisions. Supporters groups for Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton all call Boston bars home, and Liverpool fans gather across the river in Cambridge. Liverpool is now owned by John Henry, who also owns the Red Sox, and they will play a friendly this summer at Fenway Park. The game is alive and well in Boston, perhaps for the first time ever. But at the same time, it is not here yet.
Much of the info regarding the Fall River teams comes from David Wagnerin’s Distant Corners, which is a wonderful, if often disheartening, book about the history of American soccer.